Effective User Access Reviews

October 7, 2022
by Zilla Content Team
Effective User Access Reviews

You want to get the most out of your employees, and that means giving them the access rights and system privileges they need to do their jobs effectively. But as their responsibilities grow, their positions shift and evolve, and they continue to gain diverse experience throughout the company, those system privileges can pile up and remain in effect long after they’re needed. As a result, your valuable, long-term employees may be putting your business in danger; when a single individual has direct access to so much sensitive data, they become a security vulnerability that you can’t afford to overlook. 

To help ensure that your most tenured employees don’t turn into potential threat vectors, consider adopting a user access review process.

What exactly is a user access review? And how can your business make user access reviews an effective and ongoing part of your access management strategy? In this guide, we take a deeper look and outline some of the steps you can take to prevent employee privilege creep.

What Is a User Access Review?

A user access review is essentially what it sounds like – a periodic assessment and inventory of the user access rights held by every current and former employee, as well as any third-party contractors. The goal is to systematically verify that only legitimate system and network users have access to potentially sensitive applications, data, and IT infrastructure. As reviewers discover obsolete system privileges still attached to those who have transferred to different positions or left the company entirely, they can then update access rights to remove any lingering privileges they no longer need.

Although organizations may choose to conduct user access reviews in different ways, the process itself generally consists of a re-evaluation of the following:

Access Rights and Privileges

A user’s access rights and privileges define what an individual (usually an employee or contractor) can see or do within an organization. More specifically, access rights determine what systems and functionality are available to the user, what kind of data they can view, and what resources they can use.

User Roles

User roles describe the responsibilities attached to a system user, including which specific tasks they are assigned. User roles help determine what information the user is authorized to access and what system functions are necessary to assist them in performing their duties.

User Credentials

Credentials authenticate users as they log into applications, systems, or accounts. These usually consist of a username and password combination, but may also incorporate biometric data or multiple authentication tools to further verify the user’s identity. 

Performed correctly, a user access review will give you a clear picture of which employees should have access to which system, which employees currently have access to those systems, and where there are any discrepancies between those two figures that need to be resolved.

Why Are User Access Reviews Important?

Reviewing and updating system rights for every employee may seem like an unnecessarily time-consuming task. But the reality is that the human element plays a key role in approximately 82% of company data breaches. And while malicious insider threats will always be a concern, employee mistakes may account for the majority of these breaches. 

In other words, the issue isn’t necessarily whether you trust your employees; it’s whether the employees have unnecessary privileges, outdated roles, or redundant credentials that could unintentionally expose your company to risk. As such, the primary goal of any user access review process is to limit access to business data and resources to decrease the chance of experiencing a security breach. By revoking redundant or obsolete system rights, your business can significantly reduce the following risks:

Insider Threats

An insider threat is an employee or other user who operates within the organization. These individuals represent a major security threat because they are intentionally attempting to circumvent established security measures and may have in-depth knowledge about vulnerabilities. User access reviews help keep insider threats from gaining access to systems and data beyond their current authorization, limiting their opportunities and allowing for easier user tracking.

Privilege Creep

Employees’ roles and positions change within an organization, often leading to them being granted access to many different systems and resources. But as these employees gain new system rights, sometimes the older access rights aren’t revoked. A user access review should identify outdated privileges so that they can be removed, leaving only those rights that are relevant to the users’ current roles.

Excessive Privileges

Sometimes employees need additional system rights to perform a specific task. These extra system rights may be granted on an as-needed basis, but if they are not revoked once the task is complete, or if permanent access is granted in anticipation of the employee needing access sometime in the future, it can become a problem. Again, a user access review can bring the employee’s system rights more firmly in line with their current responsibilities.

Licensing Overspending

Although perhaps not as great of a threat as experiencing a data breach, overspending on licensing can still add up and cut into a company’s profits. When organizations fail to revoke system access for former or transitioning employees, they may end up paying for product licenses that are not being used.

Access from Former Employees

When an employee leaves your organization – whether voluntarily or otherwise – they should have their system rights and credentials immediately revoked. Unfortunately, privileges sometimes get lost in the shuffle, resulting in former employees retaining their access to potentially sensitive resources, data, or systems. User access reviews need to follow a regular enough cadence to catch these overlooked ex-employee system rights before they can become a problem.

User Access Review Best Practices

To keep up with the constant churn of onboarding, offboarding, and shifting positions within an organization, businesses across every industry should be conducting user access reviews. Establishing regular reviews can take some work, particularly if your business isn’t already paying close attention to user access and credentials. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to ensure that your user access review process is an effective one. 

Here are several user access review best practices designed to help nearly any business rein in outdated employee rights.

Establish a Formal Access Policy and Review Process

Your first step in creating a working access review process is to work with the other decision-makers and stakeholders within your business to institute a formal access management policy. This will need to be fairly comprehensive and include lists of sensitive data and resources, user roles and access types, security measures, and the procedures involved in granting, revoking, and documenting access rights. This policy may require occasional revisions to keep it in line with changing company objectives.

With the policy securely in place, you can then build your review process. Determine how often you will need to conduct reviews, what they will include, and who will be responsible for overseeing and following up on them. You will also need to decide on how to report your findings so that any subsequent actions you may need to take can be quickly assigned and completed. By formalizing this process, you set the standard for future user access reviews.

Implement Role-Based Access Control

Granting system access and privileges on a case-by-case basis creates an overly complex web of user rights. Instead, consider employing the role-based access control (RBAC) model. 

RBAC allows you to assign access based on positions and roles within the company, streamlining the user access review process. Instead of having to review individual users and accounts, you can simply evaluate the roles themselves to determine whether they include only those system privileges that are appropriate to their responsibilities.

Avoid Granting Permanent Access

Tasks come and go, and so should system rights. The IT principle of least privilege states that a user should only have access to the systems and resources required to do the job at hand. Additionally, consider using just-in-time privileged access management (PAM) – only granting additional system rights on a temporary basis and revoking them immediately upon the completion of the task. 

Switching your mindset from permanent access to temporary eliminates the need to dedicate time to revoking system access during the user access review process.

Get Employees and Stakeholders on Board

As with most business initiatives, you’ll need buy-in from key stakeholders for your user access reviews to be effective. Take the time to meet with employees and those in leadership to discuss the purpose and importance of holding regular user access reviews. Help them understand that these processes exist to prevent bigger complications in the future. Make user access review training a part of your ongoing employee cyber security education.

Of course, getting people involved means more than just telling them why they should care; it means giving them a voice. Connect with your people by touching base with them and asking for their feedback. This can be as simple as having them review the user access review process. Alternatively, give each employee a list of the system rights and resources they currently have access to, and ask them to identify any that they no longer need. This will help them feel more in control of the process, and reduce your chances of encountering resistance from within your workforce.

Streamline User Access Reviews with Zilla

User access reviews are a vital component of access management and data security. But without the right resources and support, they can quickly devolve into a grueling, disruptive chore. Zilla, the industry-leading access security and compliance platform, provides the solution.

Zilla’s user access reviews solution forgoes complex and labor-intensive review processes, instead offering an intuitive, comprehensive, and fully automated experience. Collect access data from across your entire organization, connect accounts and permissions to user identities, perform and track review actions, gain the advantages of in-depth reporting, and create an automated, auditable system of record for the entire process. Zilla makes it all possible. 

After all, you want to get the most out of your valuable employees, and to do their work effectively, they need the right system resources. On the other hand, securing your business means making sure those resources are all properly authorized and accounted for. Correctly implemented, a user access review process can bring these objectives together, for a productive workforce that doesn’t compromise your data security.

See for yourself what the right approach to user access reviews can do for your business; contact Zilla and start your free trial today